By David Mullen
The AFC (even as the AFL before the merger with the NFL) has always been known as a home for quarterbacks with big arms. Think of Hall of Famers Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Fouts, John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Warren Moon and soon to be Hall of Famers Payton Manning and Tom Brady. They became noted for their grasp of the forward pass.
Looking at the AFC in this uncertain 2020 NFL season, great quarterbacks remain in the conference. But these days, it is the run, not the pass, that makes the new crop of offensive leadership elite.
Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens bring a speed element to the conference known for drop back passers. It should come as no surprise that the AFC East has decided to follow suit.
The biggest offseason news on the field this year was New England legend Brady leaving the chowder behind for the Cuban sandwiches in Tampa. Finally, it looked like the Pats could be vulnerable. Then the Pats signed Cam Newton, who was a multi-faceted quarterback when Mahomes, Watson and Jackson were playing Madden Football ‘92. Suddenly, the faith and the faithful returned to New England. Let’s see what coach Bill Belichick can do with Newton. In this division, they have but one team that can stop them.
If ever there was a chance to revive the great Kelly years in Buffalo, it could be with this Bills team led by quarterback Josh Allen, who now has Stefon Diggs to throw to, and a very good defense. When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way … until you get traded like Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams. Even the New York media can’t overhype this team. New York must look across the Hudson River from their New Jersey home and give thanks every day for the Knicks.
And as part of the complete rebuild in Miami, the Dolphins added quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, coming off of a hip dislocation suffered at Alabama.
It is hard to fathom that New England will fall back to the pack. That would be as popular in Boston as the Tea Act.
The Ravens dominated the AFC North last year and Jackson had an MVP year, but things fell their way. The archrival Pittsburgh Steelers lost their leader QB Ben Roethlisberger for the last 14 games of the season and the Ravens won 12 in a row.
Jackson is just 23, and there is no reason to believe that the Ravens won’t win the division again. But gritty Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger won’t hand them a division title without a fight. Literally. These are the typically the hardest hitting games of the year.
This is where Browns fans show their eternal optimism. New coach Kevin Stefanski has simplified the offense for former number one pick quarterback Baker Mayfield, who often looks more like “Johnny Football” than Johnny Unitas. Wake up and smell Lake Erie, Browns fans. This is not your year, again.
And the Bengals are starting over with new coach Zac Taylor and current number one draft pick quarterback Joe Burrow. The former LSU Tiger is a winner and fans all over will be watching. Ironically, Burrow comes out of college nearly one year older than Jackson.
The first one to .500 in the AFC South wins. It seems like eons ago when the Texans blew a 24-point lead in the 2019 AFC divisional championship to the Chiefs. In 2020, they play their division opponents, the Chiefs again, the Patriots and the NFC Central. It won’t be as easy for the Texans to win this season after trading away key players in the winter. But their divisional opponents are doing their part to help.
The Tennessee Titans are banking on Ryan Tannehill to lead them to a crown. The Indianapolis Colts brings in 38-year-old Philip Rivers to lead the team. Rivers is unbelievably sixth all-time in passing yardage and closing in on Marino for fifth place. He is 5-6 in career playoff games with the San Diego, now Los Angeles, Chargers. And a funny thing happened to Jacksonville on the way to regaining respectability. The Jaguars cut their best player, Leonard Fournette, on September 1.
The World Champion Chiefs, that I am sure will be renamed The Kansas City Brisket for political correctness, are the team to beat in the entire AFC. Mahomes is inked for life with contract approaching a half of a billion dollars. Coach Andy Reid and GM Brett Veach just signed large extensions. Almost all of their best players, and there are many, are returning.
Odds are that the Las Vegas Raiders will generate excitement, but not in an environment without fans. It’s hard to gel as a team with so much roster turnover, which has become an annual event. Head Coach John Gruden is highly regarded considering his regular season record is a very pedestrian 106-102. This will be quarterback Derek Carr’s “make-it-or-break-it” year with the Raiders.
The Chargers are intriguing under likable head coach Anthony Lynn. But they go into the season with Tyrod Taylor as quarterback and top pick Justin Herbert ready to step in. The Denver Broncos are not very good, but quarterback Drew Lock has shown some signs that he can play in the league as they try to rebuild a once great passing game.
Seven teams make the 2020 playoffs. The top seed, the Brisket, I mean, Chiefs, will get a first round bye. The Ravens, Texans and Bills — yes, those Bills — will in their divisions. The Patriots, Steelers and the Colts will be the wild card teams. But Kansas City will make a playoff run and return to the Super Bowl. And is 2020, run is the optimal word.
Next week, we preview the NFC, the local team based in Frisco that plays in Arlington and predict the Super Bowl LV Champions.